by Hank Leukart
March 26, 2010
Living amidst rock climbing history
Moving into Yosemite’s Camp 4.
People waiting in line at Camp 4 ranger station
OSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, California — When I arrive at Yosemite’s famous Camp 4, considered the birthplace of modern rock climbing, I see almost 100 tents strewn across a bevy of campsites with international climbers milling about speaking German, French, Spanish, Japanese, and even Arabic. I check in with the Park Ranger, and she tells me that for five dollars per night, I’ll be sharing campsite 13 with five other strangers. That’s only one dollar per stranger, I think. I pay her and walk across the Camp, past a plaque telling me that I’m in a Historic Place on the National Register. I learn that Camp 4 served as a temporary home for many pioneering rock climbers during Yosemite’s climbing golden age in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Swiss climber John Salathe, considered the father of American climbing, and pioneering California climbers Royal Robbins and Warren Harding, stayed at Camp 4 during this time.
On my way to campsite 13, I pass the famous Columbia Boulder, an enormous mass of rock with a painted white lightning bolt denoting Midnight Lightning, the boulder’s exceptionally difficult climbing problem. (Climbers refer to tricky climbing routes as “problems.”) I look at Midnight Lightning, a route first climbed successfully in 1978 by celebrated Yosemite climber Ron Kauk, and I resolve to climb to the top of it — just as soon as I learn to levitate.
After I erect my tent, I take a quick lap around the entire camp, people watching, and hoping, maybe, that I’ll run into a cute European girl, possibly an athletic one from Switzerland, when, suddenly, I come across a cute, athletic European girl who turns out to be from Switzerland. She’s eating gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, for which I quickly chastise her, because, well, eating cookies without gluten is like eating popcorn without corn. She tells me that her name is Wini and that she is a 23 year old nurse enjoying some time off work on a two-month vacation to the US. She offers me a gluten-free cookie, an offer that prompts me to fake-vomit and gag, and I tell her I’m living in Yosemite though I’ve only been here for two days, and she acts like this is the coolest thing she’s ever heard, and then she tells me that Swiss cheese isn’t anything like the cheese they actually have in Switzerland, and then suddenly, somehow, we’re friends.
In the evening, I explore Yosemite Village and discover the Village Store, Degnan’s Deli, the Ansel Adams Photo Gallery, the Post Office, and the Visitor Center. Then I enter the Yosemite Theater, a tiny auditorium connected to the Visitor Center. Inside, a 400 year old man spends 90 minutes on stage impersonating John Muir, who I learn almost single-handedly convinced Teddy Roosevelt to establish America’s National Park System. Fake John Muir has a real beard that’s long and white, and I think that if it’s true that Real John Muir looked and sounded exactly like Santa Claus, then this guy is a dead ringer for him. And Santa Claus.
Fake John Muir acts as if he lives full time in the Yosemite Theater when he welcomes all 50 of us to his “home.” He then proceeds to recite excerpts from Real John Muir’s books and diaries but in a clever conversational tone that makes us feel like we’re chatting with Real John Muir — except in a conversation where it’s impossible for us to get in a word edgewise.
“In all my mountaineering I have enjoyed only one avalanche ride,” Fake John Muir says, as he recounts the famous story from Real John Muir’s book, The Yosemite. Then, before we can say a thing, he talks about the history of Hetch Hetchy Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, two other beautiful Yosemite destinations.
At first I think I’m going to hate Fake John Muir and fall asleep during his quirky one-man show, but you can’t really hate Santa Claus, and he grows on me. By the end, he has convinced me: America’s National Parks are truly the country’s best idea ever; Real John Muir is now one of my personal heroes; and I really need to visit Hetch Hetchy and Tuolumne Meadows while I’m living here.
After the show, as I walk back toward Camp 4, a woman asks me if I know where the deli is.
“Degnan’s?” I ask. “It’s just over there past the Village Store.” The woman thanks me.
“No problem,” I say. After all, I live here, I think.
After I fall asleep in Camp 4, I awake at 4 A.M. to the sound of footsteps outside my tent. I hear loud crashes of metal and noisy chewing, just ten feet from my sleeping bag.
“Hank! Wake up!” a frightened Wini yells at me. At nightfall, this adorable Swiss girl somehow convinced me to let her sleep in my tent, because, she told me, she’s terrified of Yosemite’s black bears. “I think there’s a bear out there!”
I peek out of my tent’s rain cover, and though it’s too dark for me to see much, I make out a shadowy, moving shape that I assume is the world’s smartest bear — one that has seemingly figured out how to open our supposedly bear-proof food lockers. As if to spite me, he’s loudly chomping on and devouring all of our goodies. Sleepily, I yell “Bear! Get away, bear!” and slap the bottoms of my sandals together, making a very loud popping sound to scare him. As I do so, many other Camp 4 residents join me, yelling and banging their pots and pans together. I feel a strong camaraderie with these hikers and climbers in Camp 4 — people I’ve never met, who are surprisingly willing to help me chase a bear away from my campsite at four in the morning.
As I fall asleep, I think to myself what a special home Camp 4 makes — even if living here means involuntarily donating my food to bears in the middle of the night.
How to Camp in Yosemite’s Camp 4
- Reservations are not available for Camp 4, but there are a limited number of campsites, which are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis.
- The campground fills most mornings from spring to fall. Though the Park Ranger arrives at the Camp 4 kiosk at 8:30 A.M. every day to hand out the available spaces in the campground, you should be in line by 8:00 AM if you plan on getting a spot.
- The ranger assigns six people to each campsite, and groups may be split up depending on availability. The Park Service charges $5 per night per person, and you can pay in advance for the number of nights you want to stay.
- During the summer, campers are limited to seven days in Camp 4. During the rest of the year, campers are limited to 14 days.
- Showers are not available at Camp 4, but campers can pay $5 at Curry Village or Housekeeping Camp to take a shower. Parking is available adjacent to Camp 4.